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Vote like your life depends on it
Sarah Aarthun CNN
Published: 06 September 2012

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (CNN) -- They've traveled for nearly 40 days, risking arrest, or worse, deportation.

Their home for the past month: a 40-year-old converted Greyhound bus dubbed "Priscilla."

Among them are day laborers, students, stay-at-home moms and leaders of nonprofit organizations.

And at each stop along the way, in states with some of the most stringent laws against undocumented immigrants, they chant: "No papers, no fear. Dignity is standing here."

The group's cross-country journey ended this week in Charlotte, site of the Democratic National Convention.

The timing is strategic. Their goal while they're here is to call Democrats' attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

The trip began July 29 in Phoenix - home to controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio - and has taken them through 15 cities. Stops have included Denver, Austin, Texas; New Orleans; Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; and Knoxville, Tennessee.

For Leticia Ramirez, the scariest portion of the cross-country drive came while traveling from Austin to New Orleans on a stretch of Interstate 10 known for police checkpoints.

She knew the bus, emblazoned with the words "No Papers No Fear," would be an obvious target to be stopped.

The 27-year-old mother of three had one fear: "I was thinking of my kids. I didn't know if I was going to see them again."

The bus made it through to New Orleans without incident.

"We knew the risk in joining this movement, why not risk it?" Ramirez said. "That's why we are here."

Efforts to call attention to the group's cause have escalated as the journey has progressed, beginning with quiet news conferences and cultural performances in Denver and growing to include sit-ins across the street from the Knoxville County Sheriff's Office in Tennessee.

On Tuesday, they made their biggest stand yet, taking over an intersection near the Democratic convention holding banners defiantly proclaiming, "Undocumented" and "Migration is a human right."

In all, 10 people were arrested and charged with impeding traffic, Charlotte police said. None faces deportation proceedings, said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"ICE has taken no enforcement action against the Ride for Justice activists arrested Tuesday in Charlotte," Feinstein said in a statement. "ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States."

The group said it planned the act of civil disobedience "because we are tired of the mistreatment. We are tired of waiting for change and we know that it never comes without risk or without sacrifice."

Among those arrested was 25-year-old Ireri Unzueta Carrasco. Unzueta, who lives in Chicago, has a familiar story. Born in Mexico City, she came to the United States when she was 7 years old after her father was offered a job. To be with him, Unzueta, her mother and sister made the trip on tourist visas.

When the visas ran out, "we had already started to make our lives here."

They stayed, but not without consequences. For Unzueta and her sister, being undocumented meant no access to financial aid for school. No scholarships. No opportunity to study abroad.

It also meant being away from their extended family in Mexico.

"There was always fear, knowing deportation is a risk," she said. "But more than fear, I was angry and sad. ... I wanted to be with my family and play with my cousins and grow up alongside them."

She says the risk of her undocumented status really hit home for her three years ago when a friend of the family faced deportation proceedings.

"It really pushed me to figure out how to defend him," she said.

She started organizing an effort to draw attention to the friend's cause, petitioning local leaders and sending thousands of letters and faxes to ICE Director John Morton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

She calls it her campaign of "coming out of the shadows, showing people we are not just numbers, we are human beings."

The friend was eventually released without consequence.

Her successful effort caused her to realize "the power we had when we organized."

"It was the first time I really felt that I could have control over what it meant to be undocumented," she said.

At age 55, Phoenix resident Maria Rodriguez is one of the oldest riders on the bus. Though she's a permanent resident of the United States, she joined the group's movement because, like many of her peers, she has family members who are undocumented, including her brother, who has been deported.

Immigration legislation "affects us all," she says, but most of all, it has lasting effects on the children of undocumented migrants.

Though they may be born in this country, they live with the fear that their parents could be deported at any time, Rodriguez says. As a result, they suffer long-term "psychological consequences."

Gabriela Alcazar, 24, is one of those children. Born in Chicago, she grew up with parents who were each without papers at one time or another.

"I remember waiting at the (Mexican) border for my mother to come across, not knowing if she would make it," she said.

Lately, Unzueta says she has noticed that the dialogue on illegal immigration has turned into a "criminalization of our parents."

Legislators today, she says, are more supportive of young people and lay the blame for their undocumented status on their parents, who, in most cases, brought their children to this country.

"I blame immigration laws. They haven't adjusted to the needs of our society," Unzueta said.

The White House announced in June a bold new policy that halts deportations of some young immigrants who came to America illegally as children. The policy is considered a temporary measure that allows eligible immigrants to apply for work permits and deportation deferral for a two-year period.

Alcazar says the policy doesn't go far enough.

"It's supposed to be this grand thing, but it's still up to the individual discretion of ICE officers through an application and approval process," she said.

Other members of the group point to the number of immigrants deported under the Obama administration: 1 million people over the past four years, they say. ICE puts the number at roughly 1.5 million since 2009.

But they also say they know that Obama and the Democratic Party are the ones in the best position to affect change.

"He (Obama) has the power to do something," Ramirez said, calling for the president to end deportations altogether. "We just want to work and have a decent life."

Alcazar, who now lives in Detroit, said she was motivated to join the bus journey when she heard the group would be going to the Democratic convention.

"Republicans, we know where they stand," Alcazar said. "They've picked a side. They are bigots, anti-immigration and anti-family. ... Instead, we need to start pressuring our allies (Democrats) to make real gains for our community."

Her statements echo the larger group's stated goal: for Obama "to be remembered as the one who found the way to include the millions struggling for a better life in this country. We want President Obama to use his executive authority to provide relief for our entire community, students, parents, and all of us."

On Friday, the 40 bus riders will head back to their homes with the hopes that their message was heard in Charlotte and other cities.

All the members vow to continue raising awareness back in their individual communities.

They'll be returning with a new symbol to inspire others to join them: the Monarch butterfly.

"We would like to migrate freely around the country," Alcazar says, "just as butterflies do."

CNN's Julie In contributed to this report.

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